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Life Inside The Alzheimer's Ward: A Hidden World Revealed

Maja Daniels

Inside the walls of a geriatric hospital in France, time stands still. Light falls across two stockinged feet on a bed. The fading floral pattern on a swath of wallpaper is interrupted by an unused corkboard. And between these scenes of stillness, residents approach a pair of locked doors with modest curiosity, expectation and even anger.

Swedish photographer Maja Daniels says those doors, which were locked to prevent the residents from wandering, were crucial early in the project.

"I found myself on the other side of those doors looking at someone looking at me, waving at me to get my attention and not knowing why," Daniels says. "That vision just stuck with me."

Daniels is the inaugural winner of the Bob and Diane Fund, a $5,000 grant for visual storytelling about Alzheimer's disease and dementia. National Geographic's Gina Martin started the fund this year and named it in honor of her mother, Diane, who died from Alzheimer's in 2011, and her father, Robert.

"It's very hard to document Alzheimer's disease," Martin said. "I think people will find [Maja's] work to be very smart, fresh and modern."

/ Maja Daniels
Maja Daniels

After spending time with the hospital residents and their families and getting permission to photograph, Daniels visited the hospital for about a week each month over three years.

With the backing of the grant, Daniels plans to create a publication of the work that will be distributed as part of a larger project on aging.

Shots caught up with Daniels to talk about her project. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

How did you first get into the project?

I was studying at university and was part of a photographic collective. We were approached by this really dynamic director of a geriatric hospital who was keen to have image makers come in and collaborate. It's very rare to have this opportunity — it's a very closed world. That's also why it's frightening to many people. We don't always know what's hiding behind those doors.

/ Maja Daniels
Maja Daniels

What was it like to spend time on the other side getting to know the people who were there?

The power of the project lies in its very strict viewpoint and simplistic storytelling. It's not trying to tell everything that's going on; it's taking the standpoint of one of the residents and lingering with that. I wanted to get into the spirit of being a part of this world. How does that affect someone? That door would always remain shut for them. Even though there are activities and people rushing in and out to care for them, a large majority of the time is spent without much happening at all. So that silence is something I wanted to get across, partly because it felt like part of some interior silence as well. When you're experiencing this disease it's like the world is slowly fading.

How did the residents first respond to you when you began shooting?

Part of the preparation work was to introduce myself to residents, to their families, to the carers and the hospital in general. I'd do it without cameras, and just spend time meeting people. The residents took to me as a human presence in the ward that was appreciated. Someone there who could tie them to the now or to the everyday. If you're just left to yourself, you kind of float around in your mind, you can go to other places, but with someone else in your space, you're tied to that moment in time.

It was interesting to see how the camera got to play its own role because it was something that many residents would relate to. There's a lot of corporeal memory that's stuck in your body that doesn't leave with Alzheimer's disease. For instance, if you've been singing a lot in your life, you'll still have this urge to sing. There was a mechanic and he was absolutely fascinated with the camera. He took a lot of pictures himself and was positively pleased by its presence there.

How did the families respond to the work?

It's often very difficult to look at a photograph of a person you know because the photograph becomes something else to you. It was very hard for them to look at [the work], but they were motivated to let the story get out there and to hopefully bring more attention to the topic, to care policies and how institutions work. Some families didn't want their residents to be photographed at all, which was absolutely fine as well.

/ Maja Daniels
Maja Daniels

Has this changed the way you view Alzheimer's?

Yeah, of course. I didn't know much at the onset. I didn't know that there were these moments of lucidity where it becomes clear to the person that they are losing their memories. And these moments can cause trouble. Depression kicks in or other aspects of violence or frustration. This is something I didn't know about the disease beforehand. It's all very complex.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meredith Rizzo is a visuals editor and art director on NPR's Science desk. She produces multimedia stories that illuminate science topics through visual reporting, animation, illustration, photography and video. In her time on the Science desk, she's reported from Hong Kong during the early days of the pandemic, photographed the experiences of the first patient to receive an experimental CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease and covered post-wildfire issues from Australia to California. In 2021, she worked with a team on NPR's Joy Generator, a randomized ideas machine for ways to tap into positive emotions following a year of life in the pandemic. In 2019, she photographed, reported and produced another interactive visual guide exploring how the shape and size of many common grocery store plastics affect their recyclability.

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